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One of the most common classroom behavior management systems I see in elementary schools is the traffic light level system wherein students “on green” have shown good behavior and those with not-so-good behavior are either “on yellow” or have the dreaded “red day” if the behavior is bad enough. Some teachers might still use the smiley face system (e.g., smiley, straight face, frowny face), might have more than three colors, or might use the school mascot (e.g., “a green fox day”), but they are all based on the same idea. However, they are used incredibly differently across teachers, so:

Here are some things to ask your child’s teacher and why it matters

1. What does it mean?

Some teachers use level systems only as a way to communicate with parents about that child’s behavior. It is typically not a great way to measure behavior for many reasons, so you need to ask more questions about what types of behaviors are “red,” “yellow” and “green.” That will give you a better idea of that teacher’s sensitivity to certain behaviors and where your son or daughter fits in relative to the rest of the class.

Sometimes teachers use the levels as ways for the student to gain/lose access to certain privileges. For example,

Green light = get something from the treasure box of treats

Yellow = 5 minutes on the fence at recess

Red = lose recess and get a note home to your parents

It is always good to know what each level means in your child’s classroom. It might be something you can talk about at home.

2. If my son has to “move his color to red” during the day, can he earn back to “green?”

This one is huge. Sometimes teachers use these systems as a one time, punishment only system. An example of this would be if your son comes in first thing in the morning and gets put “on red” because he threw his bookbag after having a crappy morning on the bus or at home. With a punishment only system, he will not have the opportunity to earn back to “green” the entire day. This is a horrendous way to run a level system and if your son’s teacher runs it this way, do not consider it an accurate measurement of his day’s behavior.

Some teachers use it in a much more effective way in that the kids can go through multiple changes of color throughout the day (e.g. earn back “green” after having “moved to red” in the morning) and experience the pros and cons of the system multiple times. Whereas this is the best way for the system to be used to affect positive behavior change, it is not the best way to measure student’s daily behavior. Ending on “green” might be due to the fact that your son had a terrible day, but was able to get it back together and be reinforced for turning it around at the end of the day.

If this is the case, and you are worried about your child’s behavior, ask how often his or her color was moved throughout the day. Being “on green” all day is certainly different than getting back to “green” at the end of the day after fighting around “yellow” and “red” all morning.

3. Can we meet?

If your son continuously comes home with “red” days, you will need to have a conference with your teacher to better understand the system and where it is failing your son or daughter. If the teacher is using it as a behavior management tool of some sort and your son or daughter is experiencing more “reds” than “greens,” the system is not working. If it were, there would be signs of progress, not punishment.  It might also be that there are signs of behavioral progress the system is not catching because it is such a crude measurement of behavior. It could be that your son’s “yellow” is another student’s “red,” because the teacher understands he needs more support and will allow a little more leniency. It might mean your kid could care less about being “on green” and would rather sit out at recess than plan. You need to know these things.

Do you have any more questions about this or other classroom management systems your child’s teacher uses? Ask here or on the BehaviorBandAid Facebook page!


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